Not every movie can be Groundhog Day. But I think it’s fair to take a movie directed by Harold Ramis, who admits in the director’s commentary that he made this movie because he wanted to do “something like Groundhog Day,” and hope that it might have some moral and intellectual curiosity about its premise. Alas, Bedazzled is a dumb movie with not much to say, avoiding badness exclusively thanks to one brilliant performance.
So let’s start with that performance. Elizabeth Hurley, a British model with little acting experience, gives an absolute knockout turn as The Devil. She is, if you will excuse the pun, ungodly beautiful, in utter command of every frame of every scene she appears in. Scroll through any online thread with the topic “when did you know you had hit puberty?” or similar, and you will find a tidal wave of millennials saying it was Hurley and her thirty-five outfits in this film. With good reason.
It’s more than the looks, though: She’s extremely funny, has great chemistry with star Brendan Fraser, and has a zesty, physical energy that feels like it comes from a screwball comedy. Her performance alone makes the film worth watching.
But let’s back up for a moment. Bedazzled tells a variation of the Faust story, where geeky loser Elliot (Fraser) sells his soul to The Devil for seven wishes because he wants Alison (Frances O’Connor) to fall in love with him. The film is a remake of a 1967 British comedy classic by Dudley Moore and Peter Cooke that is far wittier and smarter than this film (though even more loosely structured).
What is the cost of Elliot losing his soul in his arrangement with the devil? Well, the movie doesn’t really have an answer for this question; it takes for granted that losing a soul is a bad thing without spending much time pondering why. It makes me wonder how Ramis ever saw this as even remotely Groundhog Day-esque.
What Bedazzled is, in practice, is an excuse to put Brendan Fraser and the game cast (reappearing in different roles, Wizard of Oz-style) in various sketches where Fraser’s wishes get turned against him, stitched together with scenes of Fraser and Hurley bantering for a few minutes. Some of these sketches are fun and allow Fraser to let go of his nice pretty boy routine and get unhinged a few times: he plays a drug lord, a writer, an athlete, Abraham Lincoln, etc. Lots of variety. But mostly I kept waiting for the movie to get back to Hurley’s Devil, who is more interesting than any of the vignettes.
There remains some charm in a high-concept, high-budget comedy with some polish and craft behind it. Many of the movie’s scenarios are visually clever and engaging (e.g. the optical illusions of Fraser as a 7-foot-6 basketball player), but the writing rarely rises above simple gags that are forgotten a scene later.
Honestly, the movie might have been better if it had ditched any pretense of moral redemption for Fraser’s Elliot and instead let him embrace the fickle futility of man in a descent to villainy. Could his lost soul and fleeting semi-omnipotence-via-wishes turn him into The Devil’s partner-in-crime? A Satanic rom-com? It would have been a better payoff than what we actually get: a funky “love-works-in-mysterious-ways” double-casting of O’Connor as a new love interest in the film’s closing five minutes.
As it is, Bedazzled is thoroughly skippable — and that’s not just my appreciation of Ramis’s previous high-concept, moral reckoning stories speaking.